Australia’s Labor party was supposed to have won yesterday’s election handily. Their surefire formula for victory of increased taxes, heightened spending on climate change and engagement with China would bring in the votes. Then the unexpected happened: Labor lost.
Australia’s Liberal-National Coalition government has returned to power in the 2019 federal election, despite polls consistently predicting victory for the opposition Labor Party. The most surprising result for Labor came from the state of Queensland. Now, many people are comparing the shock result to the 2016 US election and the UK’s Brexit referendum, which both defied opinion polls.
Few if any of the pollsters predicted it. The resulting bafflement was expressed by one tweet: “How could polls, from every company, for months including exit polls taken on election day not just be wrong but spectacularly wrong?” It was a massive intelligence failure and one worthy of examination. All political parties presumably pay for accurate polling, even if it shows them losing, because possession of the true facts is the only way to adjust their strategy. But after three failed predictions in three major Anglosphere elections, it may be time to ask how the polls got it wrong.
David Cameron called the Brexit referendum confident Remain would win. “At 10pm on Thursday, David Cameron’s team thought they were going to win. The prime minister had enjoyed dinner with his wife, Samantha, in Downing Street, and a circle of close advisers were present to watch the results come in.”
On Election Day 2016 the Hillary Clinton victory fireworks were already laid out. “Law enforcement officials and the FDNY have been told to prepare for a barge-launched pyrotechnic display off Manhattan’s Javits Center … The aerial detonations would last for two minutes, with the triumphal celebration permitted to start as early as 9:30 p.m. — a mere half-hour after the polls close in New York, sources said.”
Australian bookies had already paid those who had bet on Labor to win. “If you think Scott Morrison is happy after Saturday’s stunning election victory, consider the lucky punters who walked away with a total of $1.3 million despite backing the wrong team. Sportsbet was so confident in Labor’s chances, as were many pundits, punters and pollsters, it paid out all early bets on Bill Shorten’s team two days before Australians went to the polls.”
In each case the unthinkable had happened: the sure thing lost. Just as historians will forever wonder why the Titanic’s lookouts didn’t see the iceberg, political scientists will argue over how pollsters, presumably in honest search of the true facts, with vast sampling resources at their disposal, got it so totally wrong.
Three failures in a row should disturb everyone, not just Labor, because our methods of knowing have proved surprisingly vulnerable. The CIA failed to anticipate the fall of the Soviet Union or 9/11. Obama did not foresee the rise of ISIS or the threat of a resurgent Russia. We are all vulnerable to what is out there but we don’t see.
Are polls wrong because people are concealing their true feelings from the woke vigilantes? Do they result from some confirmation bias that blinds us? There’s a theory that the Titanic’s lookouts couldn’t see the ice ahead because North Atlantic temperature gradients refracted the berg’s position like a mirage. We see what we want to see. True believers are especially vulnerable to the Tinkerbell effect, a kind of narrative causality, that makes desired ends seem closer than they are. Ideologues can unintentionally think that if you really believe that Labor or Hillary or Europe will triumph, then they will really prevail.
But it can equally produce the reverse Tinkerbell effect. “Legal scholar David Post coined the term to refer to the phenomenon in which heightened beliefs in something increase its likelihood to produce unwanted outcomes. For instance, if more people believe that driving is safe, more people will go out for a drive, causing chaos on the roads and thus driving becomes dangerous.” Thus Hillary’s confidence in her insurmountable lead caused her to skip campaigning in the “blue collar Rustbelt” and ironically undermined her. The Atlantic wrote:
[T]here were some rumbles that Clinton’s team had taken too much for granted by pouring so much effort into Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina, three swing states she did not need to win—and ultimately did not. The price of that emphasis was extraordinarily little attention to Michigan and Wisconsin, which she did need to win, and also did not. …
Yet that explanation doesn’t fully explain the outcome. Clinton also lost in Pennsylvania, which she pursued with enormous resources, including an unprecedented final weekend barrage that deployed to the state such stars as Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, and President and Michelle Obama. More drove this result than tactics.
The trigger was a genuine social upheaval: a mass uprising by the GOP’s “coalition of restoration.” Those are the older and blue-collar whites, evangelical Christians, and non-urban voters who in polls have consistently expressed both the most economic pessimism and cultural unease about a changing America.
“The trigger was a genuine social upheaval.” And therein perhaps lies the key to the three failures. Polls, like temperature and pressure sensors, are designed to detect specific things. They are not intended to detect and classify a wideband, perhaps never before seen phenomenon like a social upheaval because it does not correspond to anything in the pollsters’ library of signatures. The polls did not know how to ask the question. These weaknesses were amplified by hate speech and censorship filters which reduces their input set. In each of the three cases, the pollsters heard something coming but they could not recognize what it was. When they looked up it was too late.
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